Think of Eurovision, of the Super Bowl, of Paris Fashion Week, of Salone del Mobile: these massive events reach thousands of people annually. But the COVID-19 crisis has called their future into question. With the congregation of large groups largely restricted, how will the show – sporting, fashion, trade, music and the like – go on? While many organizations are opting to weather the pandemic by going virtual until a vaccine is developed, event design will likely not return to normal after. Ray Winkler – CEO of Stufish Entertainment Architects – and Christopher Lee, EMEA managing director of Populous, see positives to be found in this forecast. In our latest #FrameLive talk, the pair discussed the past, present and future of event design with our founder Robert Thiemann.
Stufish has designed concerts for headliners from Beyoncé to U2 to Lady Gaga. To illustrate his first point, he showed the Zoom audience a side-by-side collage of Dublin’s Croke Park – capacity: 90,000 – and Athens’ 6th-century Theatre of Dionysus, which would have had a capacity of 17,000 at its heyday. Reflecting on the pre-pandemic realities of event design with his team, ‘What occurred to us is that the model for us consuming entertainment hasn’t really changed in the 25 centuries that separate these two venues,’ said Winkler. ‘That’s because, at the core, we are still the same. We are a tribal people – we have emerged from a society that has always been narrative-driven, you know: congregating around a campfire, telling stories, sharing memories. Even as we’ve progressed – as architecture, technology and entertainment design has changed – the essence is really to come together and share these experiences.’
Lee thought Winkler was right on target with this, going on to share an image of a game in the stadium Populous completed in 2019 for the English football club Tottenham Hotspurs, in London. ‘We have for a millennia craved this idea of sharing an experience with a group of people,’ he responded. ‘Whether it’s a Beyoncé concert or Tottenham game, there’s that instant bond between 10, 20, 60,000 people. That shared experience is what has always driven – and what I suspect will always drive us – toward live events. The intimate relationship between the performer and audience, athlete and fan, is a very unique and ephemeral one. I think it represents a pre-pandemic situation.’
The shared experience is what has always driven – and what I suspect will always drive us – toward live events
Then, of course, the pandemic came. ‘Our ability to gather literally stopped overnight here in the UK,’ reflected Winkler. ‘The desire to meet up did not stop overnight. We find social distancing as a term to be extremely misleading. What we’ve discovered is that we’ve actually come together, socially, in many different forms.’ Now that we’re gathered around this ‘proverbial, digital campfire’ until venues can be occupied again, where does this leave the opportunity for people to consume entertainment? Winkler turned to four cases: Travis Scott’s virtual concert on Fortnite, the Global Citizen One World Together at Home concert, Katy Perry’s Extended Reality performance on an American Idol broadcast and a show by Laura Marling in an empty Union Chapel. All have taken place since the COVID-19 crisis broke out, and each pose an example for how to move forward. Even still, there is a long developmental period for digital events to anticipate ahead.
‘One can’t underestimate how we, as human beings, engage in all of our senses,’ Winkler said. ‘At this stage, you can’t imagine that technology is capable of replicating a feeling that you have going to a summer festival with a summer breeze, in the proximity of your friends, with the taste of wine and beer and the consumption of music in a way that is maybe not perfect, but is embellished in the overall environment. That’s where this lockdown period has been a great experimental Petri dish for our industry. How much of this technology and this experience that we’ve discovered will we take on with us as we move out of this period? And how much will disappear because it just never really stood up to the overall desire to experience events live?’